It’s been a year and it still hurts. I don’t want it to. I want it to be gone already. Over. And so I push it away. I focus on the facts – the safe, cold, hard facts. The pain sinks back beneath the surface and I think, “I’ve succeeded.”
But then that hurt – it shows up again – but this time it rears its head as anger. That snake! How could he do this to me? To us? I trusted him! John trusted him! We entrusted him with our marriage, opened ourselves up, became vulnerable, trusted him as a good father to guide us and be there for us. And then, he betrayed us. How dare he! How dare he crush us like that!
And then the tears come.
And the guilt.
I’m sobbing now; the tears stream down my face as my soul cries out and my hands put into visible form what is so hard for me to express in any other context.
I should forgive him. I have forgiven him, haven’t I? Maybe I haven’t, because I’m still so hurt and I’m still so angry and the deeper the hurt the greater the anger.
But I’m a Christian. I should love those who have hurt me and not be angry with them.
But I’m hurt.
It’s been a year and the pain is still there.
Help me, God. It hurts so bad. In some ways, it feels like so long ago. Yet, on some days if feels like it was just this morning. If our souls are eternal, does that mean our pain and emotions somehow exist outside of time – in some space beyond the reach of the physical passing of time – as present and relevant as they were at the first moment of contact?
It hurts and I get angry. This isn’t a good Christian response, is it? And yet, even in the midst of my anger, I don’t feel God’s displeasure, but rather his comfort, as though he is reaching past the anger to my pain, and it is there that he holds me, lets me cry, tells me it is ok to cry – to feel hurt – to acknowledge the pain and the anger.
He is here, with me in my pain and anger. He has always been here.
And so I dry my eyes, take a drink of water, and resume this narrative, praying that my outburst will give you the freedom to feel and express, just as I am learning to do.
Welcome to part three of this five-part blog series on church hurts. As an idea of what was covered in the first two weeks and what you can expect in the coming weeks, here is a rundown of the topics:
Church Hurts Part 3 – Looking Back: Red Flags and God’s Goodness
Looking back, it’s easy to blame God. “Why did He allow us to get into this situation? Why is He allowing this man to continue in leadership? Where was He as we were being led down such an unrighteous path?”
It’s easy to point the shame and guilt at ourselves. “How could we have been so stupid? We should have known. We should have seen the signs. There were those moments when something didn’t sit right with us. If only we had paid closer attention! If only…”
But all the blame and shame and guilt in the world cannot remove the fact that we were hurt; that we are still hurting.
While the passage of a year may not have lessened the pain as much as I wish it had, it has given us the benefit of distance and perspective. As we have continued to process the 7-9 years we spent under the Pastor’s influence, we have come to see more and more the reality that God never left us. He was always there. He did reveal the signs, and we did see them, though we didn’t believe them at the time. He also planted the seeds of His truth and protection. When the time was right, God brought back to our minds the red flags and seeds of truth that we had seen. Working together, these two elements would serve as the silver thread that He used to guide us safely out of the labyrinth. God has also been revealing, more and more, the fullness of how much He was actively working on our behalf to protect us and remove us from the Pastor’s influence.
So, without further ado, here is the silver thread.
Red Flag # 1: I didn’t like the Pastor when I first met him. I thought he was arrogant, too harsh in his dealings with other people, and inconsiderate of their feelings.
While our first impressions may not always be correct, there is something to be said for giving them adequate consideration.
*God’s Goodness: Throughout our years under the Pastor, John and I remembered this first impression of mine. Even though I thought I had dismissed it, did I ever completely do so, or had it always been there – a fail-safe that kept me from giving all my loyalty to the Pastor rather than to God and my husband…
Red Flag #2: The Pastor frequently spoke about how he was the only person in the city who would do quality work without trying to take advantage of people.
I remember that this annoyed me. “Really?” I thought. “In a city of half-a-million people, there is absolutely nobody else who is honest and good at what they do?” Nevertheless, his frequent insistence upon his unique work ethic, which played in nicely with a general belief in the dishonest contractor, did cause us to be hesitant about seeking out anyone else for the maintenance needs of our home.
Red Flag #3: The Pastor taught that he was the only one who truly understood the word of God, that he was the only one who accurately taught it, and that he could never find anyone who taught what he taught.
*God’s Goodness: About two years before the letter, God made it known to John that He wanted us to go and see other churches. While we thought we were going to evaluate the theology and observe for ourselves just how terribly off-base every other church was, God obviously had other plans.
That first year we made it to a Catholic church and discovered, “Hey, God is here.” We went for about eight weeks and then stopped.
The next year we made it to several other churches, including an Anglican church that demonstrated a strong love for each other and a desire for community. “Hey, God is here, too.”
It began to occur to us that maybe an accurate theological understanding wasn’t the most important aspect. Maybe God cared as much, if not more, about the state of the heart. Maybe the state of the theological understanding of the mind wasn’t quite as eternally imperative as we’d come to believe. Maybe, as our new pastor says, “being right isn’t enough.”
Looking back, we can see how God was slowly and strategically chipping away at the simplistic idea we were being taught about the Pastor’s church being the only one where God’s truth and presence resided. God didn’t push us. Instead, He presented the idea and backed off. Then He presented it again and backed off.
*God’s Goodness: This gradual chipping away weakened the Pastor’s hold and began opening our eyes to the fact that there were elements of God and relationship with Him that could be learned and gained elsewhere.
I remember John lamenting after one Friday night service that, “We talk so much about what the passage doesn’t say and why every other denomination is wrong, that we never get to what it does say.”
Yes, the seeds of separation were growing, and I do believe those seeds made it easier for us to accept the truth and to separate when the time was right.
Red Flag #4: The Pastor frequently criticized others while holding himself blameless.
Its normal to get frustrated with people, isn’t it? But is it normal or healthy to have a negative opinion about everyone you know? Is it normal or beneficial to talk about the sins and faults of everyone else without ever acknowledging any sins or faults of your own?
Whether normal or not, I do know that this is another behavior that made us uncomfortable.
*God’s Goodness: As uncomfortable as we were with the Pastor’s frequent criticism of others, God eventually led us to see that we had started mimicking this less-than-admirable quality. We talked about it, prayed about it, and have been working on eliminating this bad habit from our own heart and speech.
Red Flag #5: The Pastor would regularly call people out in service and chastise them publicly in a harsh and derogatory way for sins they had shared with him privately in hopes of being able to overcome that sin through his wisdom and guidance.
I soon caught onto the fact that anything you said to the Pastor in private would make its way to the public sphere. Although he claimed he was doing this for the benefit of the congregation, the practice never sat well with us, and we slowly learned to stop sharing anything.
Red Flag #6: There were few men among the Pastor’s disciples, almost none with whom he had genuine fellowship, and absolutely nobody to whom he was in submission to or held accountable by. He claimed he knew of no one who was mature enough to guide him.
Why were there so few men? Had all the men he had ever discipled really “gone into darkness?”
The Pastor isn’t above learning from others, is he? Doesn’t he need to be encouraged by other men? Shouldn’t pastors have access to iron-sharpens-iron relationships and not simply be surrounded by “yes men (and women)?”
*God’s Goodness: God showed us the value of having people in our lives who will both affirm the good they see and will also challenge us when they believe we are off-base on something.
Red Flag #7: There was a repeated narrative that anyone who had left the church and the Pastor’s discipleship had left because they “were in darkness, hard-hearted, in rebellion to God.”
We later learned from some friends who were still attending the church that the Friday after we officially declared our resolution of not returning, the Pastor dedicated the entire service to expounding upon all the ways in which John was in sin and darkness. If a leader ever dedicates an entire service to bashing the character of someone, run. Run away as fast as you can.
*God’s Goodness: After receiving the letter and seeing the accusations of John being in darkness and hard-hearted, God brought to mind all the other times we had heard that narrative.
“Wait a minute,” we said. “We have heard him accuse other people of these things. What if that narrative isn’t true? What if it has never been true?” This realization helped set us on the course of searching out the other side of the stories we had heard. What we learned played a huge role in allowing our eyes to see and our souls to be free again.
*God’s Goodness: About a month before the letter, God gave John a vision (not a dream, for he was awake).
In John’s words, this was the vision. “A very large and nebulous head with very large horns rose up in the distance and out from it came a white goat, normal size, two normal horns. The goat walked right up to me and looked me in the eye and then ran off. Then two rows of goats just like the first came running past on either side. They kept coming and coming until I saw a wall of fire in the distance reaching to the sky. It was sweeping towards me as the goats continued to run by, but I felt no fear at the approaching fire. As the fire drew near, I could see it was consuming the goats, consuming them as it caught up with them, but I felt no fear. Then it swept over me and I turned around to watch it race after the goats, continuing to burn them up until I was all alone, and the fire and the goats were too far away to see. Then there was the first goat, with its back to me walking away, fading and vanishing as it did.”
John shared this vision with the church, looking for any insight as to its meaning. Though the Pastor said nothing, the Secretary focused on the goat that was fading away as evidence of all the sin still present in John’s life. When John didn’t immediately accept her interpretation but insisted he felt there was more to the meaning of the vision, he was criticized for not accepting her word as a prophet, for she had self-proclaimed that God had sent her as a prophet to interpret the vision.
Then one night, the greater fullness of the meaning of the vision was revealed. Yes, John had sin in his life, but that sin was slowly fading, and more importantly, he had a heart that was set on God. It was this heart for God that enabled him to withstand God’s consuming fire without fear.
God knew what was coming – the slander and character assassination John would face – and cared enough to give him the encouragement and hope he would need to carry him through; to show John what He thought of his character.
*God’s Goodness: A couple of weeks before the Pastor showed up at our house to talk to me (the Friday before the letter), I felt a sudden peace about trusting God for protection when John was away on travel. In the past, every time John’s work had required him to be away for days at a time, I had felt vulnerable, scared, and on edge. Suddenly, I felt and believed God telling me that I could trust Him to look out for me and the girls while John was away. This newfound confidence was still very much alive when the Pastor arrived. At one point, the Pastor started telling me I needed to trust him to protect me and the girls when John was away.
“Actually,” I said, “God has just been helping me realize that I can trust Him to protect us.”
I don’t think the Pastor said anything to that response…
*God’s Goodness: A few days before the letter, John told me he had the distinct impression that our time at the church was drawing to a close.
“But it probably won’t be for a little while yet,” he said, hoping to soothe the panic I would inevitably feel at the thought of leaving behind my friends in the church.
Little did we know that our last Friday with that church was only days away…
*God’s Goodness: Soon after we received the letter, God gave John the strong impression that we were to stay silent in the face of the accusations. Interestingly enough, our silence seemed to make the Pastor angry. He revealed the true state of his heart in later emails and in the John-bashing service. In a book John just finished reading (Brainwashing: the science of thought control by Kathleen Taylor), the author stated that one of the ways abusive leaders maintain control and strong group cohesion is by rallying the group against a common enemy. This would seem to indicate that even if we had defended ourselves with the most irrefutable, factual evidence, it would have only made the Pastor’s case against John that much stronger and bonded the remaining members of the church that much closer to him. This is why, other than my emotional outburst at the beginning of this post, I have continued to refrain from stating our opinions plainly. It seems God has a pretty good idea of how cults and mind-control techniques work.
*God’s Goodness: I got stitches.
The last Friday we were at the church, we had left behind one of Chloe’s toys. Though we had communicated with various people about how to retrieve it, we hadn’t officially made any plans.
One morning, I took the girls over to a new friend’s house for a playdate. I was excited about the opportunity to get to know this other mother a bit more. After I had gathered our belongings from the trunk, I pushed the button to close it before hopping over to get my 18-month-old out of the car. While she happily bounced along to greet the other kids, I somehow managed to walk headlong into the still-closing trunk. It has a built-in safety feature that stops it from closing after it hits something. In this case, that something it hit was my forehead just above my left eyebrow.
Long story short: instead of being able to spend time getting to know this great woman, I was bandaged up by her and then taken by another friend to the doctor to get stitches.
The God’s Goodness part of it all: The friend who took me to the doctor was a member of the Pastor’s church. The drive provided an opportunity to have a really good conversation with her about the letter and her experiences with the Pastor.
When I returned home, I discovered that the Pastor had let himself in (we had given him a key during our days of loyalty) and dropped off Chloe’s toy, along with a note saying he had been there. Given the current state of our relationship with him, it was extremely disturbing to realize that he was willing to enter our home without asking or even informing us of his intent. After sending him an email stressing that such behavior was highly unacceptable, John made arrangements for our locks to be changed.
The God’s Goodness part of the stitches: had I not busted my head, I probably would have been home alone when the Pastor came by.
*God’s Goodness: Seeing our hearts, God protected us during our time in Babylon. He used this highly intelligent Pastor to teach us important skills in studying His word, and when the time was right, before it was too late, he pulled us out from the lion’s den. God also used the situation to give John insight about how the darkness operates. It is our earnest hope that these lessons will now enable us to help others.
*God’s Goodness: This very week of March 25, 2019, God sent a friend right when I needed her.
Earlier in the week, I was struggling with writing this post. I knew I was missing something but didn’t know what, so I prayed.
“Please, God,” I said. “I need someone to talk to and process this with who isn’t quite so close [as John] to the situation.”
An hour or two later, I got a call from a friend and mentor I’d met in my college days. Although I didn’t confide in her right away, we soon got around to the topic of this blog series.
“You’ve covered the intellectual side of how you searched for the truth,” she said. “Maybe you need to touch on the emotional side. You’ve been hurt and you need to let yourself feel that.”
I could hear God’s wisdom in her words.
So, I followed her advice.
I let down my guard and allowed myself to feel.
And I wrote. I sat down at the computer, closed my eyes, and let my fingers do the talking. The part at the beginning is the unfiltered outcome of that time.
Yes, we have been deeply hurt. A year later, we are still feeling hurt and angry over what transpired. Yet somehow, in the midst of that pain, we can see that this situation has actually strengthened our understanding of who God truly is; of how diligently He works on our behalf; the lengths to which He will go to guide and protect us. We are also learning to see people through God’s eyes. And so, like Paul in Philippians 1:15-18, we rejoice.
Next Week: Lessons Learned